Snapshot Sunday: Street Food at Namdaemun Market

[ptcPhoto filename=”Namdaemun640.jpg” title=”Namdaemun Street Food” caption=”Street food at Namdaemun Market, Seoul – South Korea” position=”center”]

We’re in Seoul, and there’s delicious food everywhere! First built in the year 1414, Namdaemun Market is the oldest in the city, offering everything from bedding to bibimbap.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Floating Along the River Ghats of Varanasi

The sun rose over Varanasi as we boarded a small fishing boat and took to the river, cameras in hand. My excitement to see the Ganges River was palpable, and it contrasted the calmness with which thousands were assembling at the bathing ghats before starting another day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesYoga.jpg” title=”Yoga” caption=”Morning yoga” position=”center”]

As a long-time student of religion I had been reading about the Ganges for years, and I finally had the chance to see it for myself. Feeling uncharacteristically reverent, we sent out an offering of candles in tiny bowls made of areca leaves.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesOffering.jpg” title=”Offering” caption=”An offering for Mother Ganga” position=”center”]

The river is worshipped as the Goddess Ganga, and her waters are considered the embodiment of all sacred waters in Hindu mythology. The Ganges is considered both pure and purifying – it is the ultimate force to reclaim order from disorder, and to wash away the physical and symbolic impurities of those who bathe in the river.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesOldMan640.jpg” title=”Bath time” caption=”Bath time” position=”center”]

The Taj may be the first image that comes to mind with India, but these – the ghats of the Ganges – are the sight to see. We’d never seen anything like them, and I think in some ways they serve as a microcosm for the complicated, beautiful religion of Hinduism, and of India itself.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesBoats.jpg” title=”Boats” caption=”Boats on the Ganges” position=”center”]

Our guide and rower started us moving northward up the river, pointing out the various bathing ghats, Rajput palaces and temples along the way. The number of people who ventured into the early morning water was staggering, and the banks were cloaked in the colors of thousands of saris.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesColor.jpg” title=”Colors” caption=”A colorful sight” position=”center”]

The mundane activities of bathing and doing laundry were set alongside joyous children flipping into the water and the sacred prayers of sadhus, but no one seemed to mind the juxtapositions.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesPrayer.jpg” title=”Praying in the water” caption=”Praying in the water” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesWash.jpg” title=”Washing clothes on the banks” caption=”Washing clothes on the banks” position=”center”]

It wasn’t long until we drifted alongside the burning ghats where cremations are performed before the ashes (and sometimes partial bodies) are spread into the water. Instead of the cheerful hues and vigor of the bathing ghats, the burning ghats are brushed a dark gray, and the surrounding buildings are dreary with soot. Piles of wood are stacked high in the air, and mounds of smoldering ash dot the embankments that lead down to the water.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesWood.jpg” title=”Piles of wood” caption=”Piles of wood for cremations” position=”center”]

I asked our guide, “Do they see any problem with bathing right next to the burning ghats?” Meaning, “Do they see how unsanitary it is to swim next to half-burned bodies?” The confused look on his face was answer enough. No, they don’t see anything wrong with it. The river is pure, remember?

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesMenBathing.jpg” title=”Communal bathtub” caption=”A communal bathtub” position=”center”]

The people who have been sent down the Mother Ganga aren’t rotting remains; their souls have been liberated from the cycle of rebirth, and the bodies are just leftover vehicles that will eventually be absorbed back into the earth. Not only is it not disgusting, but the journey into death is occasion for merriment – they no longer have to deal with earthly worries, and they now dwell “honored in heaven”.

As non-Hindus (and germophobic Americans), we found the proximity of the bathing ghats pretty revolting. Not only because of the bodies, but also because of the vast quantities of trash, fecal matter and other pollutants that find their way into the river.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesBottle.jpg” title=”Reflections” caption=”Reflections” position=”center”]

What’s unsettling is that some people’s corpses float along here because their families couldn’t afford the hundreds of pounds of wood it takes to fully burn them. So many are put into the river after their fires go out, even though the whole process was insufficient. Others, such as pregnant women and children, are considered unsullied and therefore don’t need to be cremated. In this case, they’re just weighed down with rocks and lowered into the water. Disturbingly, it’s not uncommon for the ropes to break, and for them to float up to the surface and say hello.

There have been some efforts to remove contaminants in the river near Varanasi. Several sources point to a potential solution for the bodies, anyway: Apparently the local government has bred a special type of snapping turtle that feasts on decomposing human flesh, but steers clear of the live people who bathe in the river. (If the whole topic isn’t too graphic for you, read Environmental Graffiti’s fascinating and informative photo essay, here.)

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesFires.jpg” title=”Cremations at a burning ghat” caption=”Cremations at a burning ghat” position=”center”]

If you’re curious, it is possible to walk down to any of the ghats in Varanasi and take a closer look. We were both satisfied with seeing them from a distance, and we didn’t want to come across anything that would keep us up at night. Besides, this is a holy place, and we’re always conscious of gawking at something that people hold as sacrosanct.

Although the whole experience is rather perplexing, witnessing the ghats at Varanasi is actually quite serene, and I think the effect is what some would describe as spiritual. It would be hard to come away from it without sensing the heavy significance that thousands of years of tradition have imparted on the banks of the Ganges.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GangesMeditate640.jpg” title=”Meditation” caption=”Deep in meditation” position=”center”]

If you find yourself in India, be sure to put Varanasi at the top of your list. It may be the most intriguing place we’ve seen so far.

Month Three: Wrapping up the Subcontinent

Today marks our 100th day of traveling! We’ve been in Nepal for the last few weeks and it’s been a great place to recharge and do some writing for the website. After moving so quickly through India, we’ve been happy to stay put and take some time to explore the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamEricBoda.jpg” title=”Boudhanath Stupa” caption=”Enjoying the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu” position=”center”]

Health Matters

Unfortunately all of our good luck ran out and we took turns being sick this month. That put everything on hold for a good ten days, so some of our time in Nepal was spent inside of hotel rooms watching The Amazing Race and working (did you notice the new Trip Stats page and icons on the front page?). Sam made it through the month without anything gross happening, although Eric did have a run-in with a very hungry leech up in the mountains.

What Have We Been Up To?

Trekking in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas for a week gave us a chance to unplug and get some much-needed fresh air and exercise. Sometimes the lodges up in the mountains don’t even have electricity, so internet wasn’t available anywhere. We did a lot of reading, planning, and battling ferocious and terrifying mountain insects. Sam saw a chicken get slaughtered in one of the villages, and may or may not have cried a little (but wow, is real free-range chicken delicious!).

[ptcPhoto filename=”BuddhaEyes.jpg” title=”BuddhaEyes” caption=”Lord Buddha, god of steep mountains” position=”left”]

The Poon Hill loop is one of the easier options for this area, so it’s a good choice for beginners like us. The second day is still strenuous, as it entails walking six and a half miles up 4,600 feet of elevation gain. Beers and dal bhat, a hearty local dish, were delightful after the thousands of stone steps. Hiking so close to monsoon season meant that the skies didn’t always cooperate, but eventually we did get some nice views. We also made a new friend, Alice, who played the ukulele and shared some of her many hilarious travel stories.

[ptcPhoto filename=”EricMountain.jpg” title=”EricMountain” caption=”Snow on the Annapurna Range” position=”center”]

What’s Next?

We had planned to go overland into China next, but given the political climate of Tibet we’d have to fly into the country. If we’re flying anyways, we decided it might make more sense to head east first and go back to China in a couple of months. So this weekend we’ll bid farewell to the subcontinent and fly to Seoul, South Korea!

Back to Rajasthan: Udaipur and Pushkar

[ptcPhoto filename=”UdaipurPushkarMap.png” title=”Udaipur and Pushkar in Rajasthan” caption=”Udaipur and Pushkar in Rajasthan” position=”right”]

After our quick visit to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, we headed back to the Indian state of Rajasthan to see what else it had to offer apart from Jaipur.

Udaipur

Udaipur, also known as the Venice of the East, is home to some of the most beautiful lakes of the region. A relatively relaxing northern Indian town, Udaipur is filled with shops selling tourist goods and cafes playing the James Bond film Octopussy (which was partially filmed here).

The rooftop of our aptly named hotel, Hotel Panorama, afforded us excellent views of the city. Click here for a large panorama view.

[ptcPhoto filename=”UdaipurCityPalace.jpg” title=”Udaipur City Palace” caption=”View of City Palace from Hotel Panorama” position=”center”]

The main tourist attraction in Udaipur is City Palace, a sprawling complex of courtyards, terraces, murals and gardens. While beautiful and vast, we thought it paled in comparison to the Mysore Palace far to the south.

[ptcPhoto filename=”UdaipurPalaceCarvings.jpg” title=”Carvings at Udaipur City Palace” caption=”Intricate carvings in the palace” position=”center”]

Pushkar

Pushkar, a small town surrounded by mountains and famed for its central lake, is considered by Hindus to be one of the most holy cities in India. The legend is that the lake in Pushkar was created from a lotus flower which was dropped by the Hindu creator god Brahma.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PushkarView.jpg” title=”Pushkar” caption=”Pushkar” position=”center”]

Being a holy city, Pushkar is devoid of alcohol and animal products. Strangely however, most restaurants feature “special” lassis and chocolate balls that contain sizeable quantities of marijuana.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ChocolateBall.jpg” title=”Chocolate Ball” caption=”Chocolate Ball” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”PushkarMoto.jpg” title=”Our Transportation” caption=”Transportation for four?” position=”right”]

One of our primary reasons to visit Rajasthan was to go on a camel safari. We chose what we thought was a reputable company for our evening trek into the desert. But when we were picked up at our hotel by a single motorcycle to take us to the camel facility and told to all get on (with no helmets), better sense told us they might not have our best interests in mind. Since there was no way three of our American bodies could fit on a two-seater motorcycle (in addition to the driver), we requested they take us in two separate trips.

Camels are amazing creatures. Awkward, cantankerous, and often disobedient, they still have a certain regal character. At over 8 feet tall, riding them is definitely different from riding a horse.

Our camel safari was exciting, although perhaps more so for our friend Caroline, who received quite a bit of unwanted attention from one of the Indian guides.

[ptcPhoto filename=”CarolineCamelGuy.jpg” title=”Camel Guide” caption=”An Indian Casanova” position=”center”]

She was a good sport about it, but I don’t think they exchanged numbers.

The Taj Mahal…Check

Ah, the Taj. It’s one of the most recognizable structures in the world, and one that lures millions of tourists every year. You can’t not visit it if you go to India (unless, of course, you end up there on a Friday when it’s closed). This monument to love is sure to impress with its white marble, imposing onions and the builders’ painstaking attention to detail.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Taj2.jpg” title=”Gorgeous” caption=”Gorgeous” position=”center”]

Our visit started after we slept late at our Delhi hotel and had to rush to the railway station. The cabbie took this opportunity to train for a NASCAR race, and sped through the early morning mist going the wrong way down streets, sideswiping sleepy cows and driving alarmingly close to pedestrians. This was one of our more terrifying experiences in India, and the lucky Miss Caroline was there to share it with us. By some miracle we arrived in one piece just in time to catch the Taj Express to Agra.

Hiring a driver for the day only cost us Rs.400 ($7), so we decided to save ourselves some haggling and go with it. This also allowed us to stop by the Agra Fort – a significant landmark in its own right, but often overlooked owing to the proximity of her ostentatious sister.

[ptcPhoto filename=”AgraFort.jpg” title=”The Agra Fort” caption=”The Agra Fort” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FortGate.jpg” title=”The main gate” caption=”The main gate” position=”center”]

Upon arriving at the Taj, we paid the comically inflated fee for foreign tourists (Rs.750/$14 instead of Rs.20/$0.40) and followed the queues for high-value ticket holders onto the pristinely manicured grounds. The security to get in is pretty intense. Make sure to leave laptops, food, and anything that might be deemed dangerous at home or in the cloakroom at the train station. They wouldn’t even let me take my safety whistle inside. If I had a $4m business and one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, I suppose I’d be strict too. But laptops? Honestly? If you do take blacklisted items, there’s a locker room five minutes down from the main entrance. Insist on keeping your locker key (which seems like the whole point of locking things up) and they’ll let you take it with you.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Taj1.jpg” title=”Entering through the West Gate” caption=”Entering through the West Gate” position=”center”]

Pretty as it may be, the Taj is a mausoleum that reflects the deep grief of its builder, Emperor Shah Jahan. The Emperor’s wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth of their 14th child, and in 1648 the Taj was completed in her honor. It’s now considered one of the best examples of Muslim art, although it combines elements from Islamic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Indian architectural styles.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TajDetail.jpg” title=”TajDetail” caption=”Some detailed work of the Taj” position=”center”]

Ending with a Fun Fact: the Taj Mahal isn’t completely symmetrical. The minarets are said to lean slightly outwards, so that in the event of an earthquake they would fall out instead of in and crushing the mausoleum.